LAKE FOREST – From Akiem to Khalil, Roquan to Trevathan, Fuller to Jackson, they’ve got a unit that’s championship-ready immediately.
Had a few things gone right in their Wild Card game, they could very well be playing for a shot to get to the title game on Sunday.
Alas, the contest against the Eagles went against them despite allowing just 16 points on the game. The early exit also meant that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio got snatched up for the head coaching spot by the Broncos, leaving the incredibly talented unit without a leader for a couple of days.
Just about two to be exact, as Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy tabbed Chuck Pagano to be the next defensive coordinator.
“I think with Chuck, from the times that we talked, and just kind of seeing where he’s at, No. 1, I always say this. It starts off with good people and good, high character, so that’s No. 1,” said Nagy of his reason for selection Pagano. “Then you get to the second part. That’s the X’s and O’s part and everything that we talked about in the interview is really what I enjoy and what I think can be really good with this defense.
“He has an attacking style mentality. He is aggressive.”
It’s a reputation that Pagano’s defense first earned in his one year as a coordinator in Baltimore in 2011. He brought the 3-4 to Indianapolis when he took the head coaching position in 2012, with a defensive coordinator running the unit as he took on the added duties. After three-straight playoff appearances to open his career with the Colts, his teams missed the next three seasons and Pagano was fired after the 2017 season.
He was an NFL consultant in 2018, keeping him off the sidelines for a full year for the first time since before he started coaching in 1984 at USC.
“Like Matt talked about the aggressive mentality. He’s a great person. He’s a great evaluator. He’s had success where he’s been in the past,” said Pace on his reason for signing off on the Pagano hire. “He’s great dealing with people. He’s very collaborative. Those are all things that kept on coming up the more we met with him or talked about him.
Plus he runs the 3-4, a defensive formation that led to incredible success for the current group under Fangio. The Bears led the NFL in takeaways with 36 and points allowed with 17.7, while allowing 299.7 yards per game, which was third in the league in 2018. There are four first-team All-Pros in the group, from arguably the best defender in the NFL in Khalil Mack, veteran defensive tackle Akeim HIcks, a resurgent Kyle Fuller, and blossoming safety Eddie Jackson.
There’s also rookie standout Roquan Smith and veteran Danny Trevathan in the middle along with others that made this unit the best defense for the Bears since their last NFC Championship in 2006.
Yet the did so under the teachings of Fangio, whom Mack dubbed the “evil genius” on a number of occasions in his first season with the Bears. A number of the defenders have been with the coordinator for three or four years, learning his nuances and tendency that helped the unit grow during Fangio’s time with the team.
Could there be a dropoff as Pagano takes over, at least at the start?
“Well, we just have to — that will be really neat to see how that goes and we’ll have to monitor that throughout the OTAs and getting into training camp,” said Nagy when asked that question. “But any time you have a change like this, it’s not like going into year five with the same defense. That’s expected. But it’s how fast can you get it back up. ”
Some evidence of a smooth transition could be found in Pagano’s first coordinator job with the Ravens in 2011. True, he was on the staff for three seasons, but like he will in 2019 with the Bears, Pagano inherited a stout defense in Baltimore that already had success. Anchored by Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, Pro Bowlers Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, the unit was third in the NFL in points allowed and yardage, aiding the Ravens’ AFC North championship and run to the conference title game, where they lost to the Patriots.
With more duties than just the defense in Indianapolis, Pagano had Greg Manusky (2012-2015) and Ted Monachino (2016-2017) as his defensive coordinators. The unit never reached Baltimore levels, ranking in the top ten in one of the major categories just once in his tenure (9th in points in 2013) as the group underwent a number of changes in personnel. In his last year in Indianapolis, with the team in rebuild mode, the Colts were 30th in the league in points allowed and yards as they slipped to a 3-13 record.
Pagano will have much more to work with this year in Chicago, and Nagy’s counting on him taking advantage of that.
“Chuck, he understands what he’s coming into here player-wise, and we all as coaches understand, too, that when you’re surrounded by good players, a lot of times it’s the players and not the plays,” said Nagy. “So Chuck has tons of experience. He gets that and he’ll do everything he can to make sure that we keep this thing rolling.”
He’ll certainly have every chance to do so. A glance at the roster proves that true.